Book review - Mary Wollstonecraft: Philosophy, Passion, and Politics

While Mary Wollstonecraft earned her place at the table for pioneering women in Judy Chicago’s art installation The Dinner Party (1974–9), she would not be everyone’s ideal guest. She has a reputation as an acerbic killjoy. She deemed novels to be the ‘spawn of idleness’. She did not embrace women in sisterhood but censured them for their propensity to ‘despise the freedom which they have not sufficient virtue to struggle to attain’. Wollstonecraft has proved both an inspiration and a challenge to those who have come after her.

. By Sylvana Tomaselli


Her life and works, as Sylvana Tomaselli demonstrates in this wide-ranging new book, contain startling contradictions. On the one hand, she championed women’s capacity for reason in an age that largely treated them as sentimental playthings and decorative accessories for men. On the other, she fell passionately in love with the dashing and unscrupulous American businessman Gilbert Imlay. So fixated on him was she that she undertook a perilous journey to Scandinavia in an attempt to please him and then twice attempted suicide when he dumped her and their illegitimate daughter. 

In a similarly contrary manner, she proposed a ménage à trois with the Romantic painter Henry Fuseli and his wife, and later wed the radical philosopher William Godwin, though both of them were opposed to marriage. In some ways it is fitting, then, that Maggie Hambling’s much-derided statue in her honour at Newington Green in north London, where Wollstonecraft established a school for girls, gives off such mixed messages of awkward eroticism and shiny, hard magnificence. Wollstonecraft both flouted social norms and lived in defiance of some of her own public statements.

Tomaselli’s Wollstonecraft sets out to make sense of the apparent contradictions between her life and her philosophy, as well as within her thought…

Declaration of the Rights of Woman, 1791

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